March 2021 – we could do with a word for that

This month’s blog is about neologisms, or new words.

English has over 1 million words and around 1,000 per annum are created. One would think we have enough?

Of course, language grows and adapts to its environment. The Anglo-Saxons would not have had a word for steam engine or locomotive – since they would never have seen one. As things were invented, we had to create words for them.

New words just seem to appear. They perhaps start off being used by just one or two people, or a small group. Over time, that word spreads into the general populace and ultimately gets into the dictionary.

When a word is ‘freshly coined’ it is a protologism. Once it is in print, it is a neologism. Of course, once upon a time, the word ‘protologism’ was a protologism!

There’s the well-known myth about the creation of the word ‘quiz’ – in that it was written on walls throughout Dublin one night. Dubliners saw it and wondered what it meant and very quickly the word took on the meaning we have today.

Other recent neologisms include Brexit, noob, staycation, covidiot, app. Note how these are combinations of two words (eg BRitish EXIT) or an abbreviation (eg, app is short for application). Many neologisms can just be a symptom of laziness – we can’t be bothered to say ‘newbie’ so we say ‘noob’. ‘Newbie’ is a neologism, and thought to be a shortening of ‘new boy’, yet now it’s become ‘noob’.

Some neologisms can be unnecessary. It is quite common to use ‘gift’ as a verb: ‘They gifted me the book’. What’s wrong with gave? What meaning of ‘gave’ has been lost so that people feel a new verb was required? Was it just an error in some people’s grammar that has slowly spread? Is there actually a difference between ‘gift’ and ‘give’?

English is a subtle language – unlawful and illegal technically mean the same thing but unlawful may be used more to reflect breaking the rules of a sport, for example. Hand ball in football would be unlawful but unlikely to be referred to as illegal. Even COVID-19 and coronavirus are different things: one is the disease, the other the virus.

Perhaps, as we develop more and more technology, methods and processes we need more and more subtly different words since those we have may not be sufficient. But it’s important not to over-do it and create a word when we have perfectly good one.

Perhaps I’m being too stubborn.

Kindly proofread by Janice Gilbert of WordPerfectProof.

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